Pro-Israel groups in United States scramble to save Syria strike resolution

AIPAC, AJC, WJC lobby as over 150 House members signal they will oppose measure; ZOA and other Jewish groups take less active role, believe that the question to bomb Syria is not clear cut.

September 10, 2013 00:59
4 minute read.

AIPAC 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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WASHINGTON/NEW YORK – Jewish groups are preparing a blitz on Capitol Hill this week to salvage a resolution that would authorize the use of force in Syria in response to a devastating chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on August 21.

The effort, though, may be too little, too late, with over 150 House members already signaling that they will oppose the measure.

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Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, an American Israel Public Affairs Committee official acknowledged the difficulty of the task ahead, calling it a “challenge well worth undertaking.”

“It’s difficult, but it’s doable,” the official said.

“Anything of this importance is often this difficult. We’re not blind to the challenge here.”

When asked about the last resolution that AIPAC pushed for in the House– which included a harsh sanctions package against Iran, aimed at bringing their oil exports down to zero– the official said his organization knew the Syria vote would be a heavier lift.

“It’s not just passing a resolution,” said the official. “It’s showing determination that the US will not stand for the use of unconventional weapons against a civilian population.”

AIPAC in sending nearly 300 activists and lobbyists to meet personally with House members on the Hill throughout the week.

“We believe there’s an overwhelming moral and strategic case,” the AIPAC official added. “If we cannot act on Iran’s proxy, Syria, employing unconventional weapons, it’s going to be very difficult to deter Iran from acquiring such weapons.”

Crisis in Syria - full coverage

For the Zionist Organization of America, the question of whether to bomb Syria was not clear-cut.

“There is no simple answer, no matter what your position is, whether you’re pro-Israel or pro-Arab,” said Morton Klein, president of the ZOA. “The ZOA feels if you weaken [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, then you strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaida, who are the largest active element in the rebels and are getting stronger. If you don’t weaken Assad, that helps Iran and Hezbollah, which are a greater threat to America, to Israel and to the West.”

“We feel that if American attacks Syria, it’s important that it be a serious strike to degrade Assad’s arms and weaken Iran and Hezbollah,” Klein continued. “We’re against a weak, nonresponse.”

Klein said that the ZOA has not done any direct lobbying on the Hill for its position, but that he had spoken with several staffers and a Congressman, who he would not name, and said that their minds are in a similar place.

“Many on the Hill are not even clear whether Assad did this or the rebels did,” he said.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, echoed Klein’s thoughts that this is a “complex and serious issue.”

“As American Jewish constituents, this is not about Israel,” Hoenlein said. “This is a strategic issue that will have broader implications.”

Since it is an “international norm” to avoid and condemn the use of chemical weapons, Hoenlein said, the US could potentially set a “dangerous precedent” in how they choose to proceed, and could open the door to Iran simply ignoring US diplomatic threats.

“The failure to uphold the international norm could be an invitation to the other members of the Axis of Evil to act in a similar manner,” Hoenlein said.

Hoenlein, like Klein, said his organization was not doing any lobbying. But the American Jewish Committee and the World Jewish Congress’s American Section have both chosen to take an active role via letters and emails, spokeswoman for the WJC Betty Ehrenberg said.

In a statement released on September 3, the WJC said they “call on the United States Congress to support a resolution that will authorize President [Barack] Obama to take punitive action in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.... The message must be undeniably clear to Syria and other countries – the United States will stand by its principles, hold to its redlines, and hold to account those who possess, seek and use weapons of mass destruction.”

AJC’s executive director David Harris and AJC president Stanley Bergman announced just before Rosh Hashana that they had sent a letter to all members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, asking them to support Obama’s plan to strike.

Harris has taken a strong position pro-attack in op-eds in The Huffington Post and The Jerusalem Post, writing “If the United States now flinches, and despite our declared ‘redline,’ let’s Syria get away with the use of chemical weapons, then what is the message sent to the world?”

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